November, 11, 2011
By Josh Gross
LOS ANGELES -- Jaymz Jaime visited Nokia Plaza on Wednesday sporting the colors of Mexico on a well-worn black Tapout t-shirt. As such, the Los Angeleno didn't stand out in a crowd of about 50.
Some fans who attended the final prefight news conference for Saturday's UFC event down the road in Anaheim donned bright lime green jackets. Others draped Mexican flags over their shoulders. Regardless of the way it was expressed, the message was clear: People of Mexican descent -- "the Raza," as UFC champion Cain Velasquez calls them -- have begun to embrace an undefeated 29-year-old heavyweight who last year became the first fighter of their heritage to win a major heavyweight title in combat sports.
Yes, this is a story about a Mexican-American fighter buoyed in truths we've learned over the years. Truths put into the universe by the likes of Salvador Sanchez and Julio Cesar Chavez. To be in this club, you must have heart. You must never quit. You must fight to the end. You must be willing to go out on your shield if that is required. This is that tale. But it's also something else because Velasquez, like the sport that provides him a platform to succeed, is just now gaining prominence.
"I represent hard-working people," answered the UFC champion when asked what it meant to be embraced by some of the most passionate fight fans on the planet. "That's what my family is. That's what I've grown up around. I'm happy that Mexicans are known as hard-working people. We have a lot of heart. I try to use that in my fighting, with a lot of heart and blood; always moving forward. That's what it means to me."
This alone is enough for most Mexican fight fans -- and, to be fair, fans of any stripe -- to take notice of him. Velasquez may not box, but that matters far less than it used to.
One onlooker, Rosendo Huerta, said after the news conference concluded that he feels as passionate about MMA today as he used to about boxing. And Velasquez is a significant reason.
The UFC champion is the son of a migrant worker. He is, as Dana White so ably noted, "a kid who didn't squander what he was given." What was that, exactly? A chance. His father came to this country looking for opportunity and he found one for his kids. Velasquez, said White, is the American dream. Perhaps. He's also no less the embodiment of a next-generation Mexican-American fighter. This is not someone in the mold of Sanchez or Chavez -- not in build and appearance, anyway.
Carlos Arias, a Mexican-American reporter who covers mixed martial arts and boxing for the Orange County Register, noted that Velasquez's "story is something that a lot of our families have gone through, and to see him rise up in the heavyweight division with that exciting style, I think that's something that's really appealing to Hispanic fans.
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesAfter standing up to and defeating Brock Lesnar, heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez saw his profile soar.
"If he was a lay-and-pray type fighter, that wouldn't translate right now. So the way he goes after people and tries to finish every time, I think that's a big part of" the growing relationship between Velasquez and his fans.
Keep in mind, Velasquez has fought nine times. Unlike boxing, MMA is a sport that allows stars to rise like a literal metaphor. In just his 10th bout, Velasquez, ranked No. 1 across the board in MMA media polls at heavyweight, has earned an enormous opportunity to fight on national television, free from a pay-per-view wall, in a venue that came out 13 months ago in strong support as he ran over Brock Lesnar to capture the UFC title.
"I was at the event when he won the championship against Brock," said Huerta, wearing green, white and red from head to toe. "Watching that, I was a fan. It was amazing. To me it felt like a soccer game. It felt like the World Cup."
Huerta won't attend the fight this time. He'll stay home with his girlfriend to watch on FOX. Many people will be in their living rooms Saturday evening. It's fight night. UFC on Fox leads into Manny Pacquiao's third contest against another Mexican warrior, Juan Manuel Marquez. On a night like that, Jaymz Jaime's father would be glued to the TV. Such is the appeal of Velasquez that, rather than watching his favorite sport featuring a top Mexican against perhaps the best pound-for-pound boxer on the planet, Jaime's immigrant father will be in the Honda Center to witness the first Mexican heavyweight champion of anything do his thing.
"For him to skip out on the Pacquiao fight is a big deal because he's a strict boxing fan," Jaime said.
It took little convincing. After watching "UFC Primetime," a "24/7" promotional clone, the elder Jaime's perception of MMA changed, in part because he strongly identified with Velasquez's father.
"Mexicans are big boxing fans," said Jaime, a first-generation Mexican-American who was born in Hollywood. "Mexican people are very traditional and very stubborn in their ways. Seeing Cain being the first Mexican-American combat sports champion in history would bring a lot of people in. My father started watching mixed martial arts because of Cain."
Velasquez's reach is obviously not on the level of a Chavez, Marquez or Marco Antonio Barrera -- fighters who reside in the pantheon of Mexican greats. Velasquez hasn't been around long enough to lay claim to that. The sport isn't familiar enough to an audience just starting to connect with him, either. But it is possible that Velasquez will represent the vessel through which Mexican fight fans will come to accept mixed martial arts into their lives.
"In the Mexican community we embrace the smaller fighters," Arias said. "But to see a heavyweight champ, that's something we never see."
Chris Cozzone/AFP/Getty ImagesOnce upon a time, choosing an MMA event over a Pacquiao-Marquez bout would have been considered blasphemy.
After the media had their turn with Velasquez and dos Santos, fans were given a chance.
Some guy in the minority screamed that the 27-year-old Brazilian challenger was days away from winning the belt.
Many boos later he squealed "Cigano!” -- dos Santos' intrinsically Brazilian nickname.
"Chicano!" they replied.
This went on two or three times.
Not long after the good-natured skirmish subsided, Jaymz, 30, was handed a microphone. He had a request.
"You're an awesome role model for us Mexicans, man," he said. "I'm proud to be Mexican because of you. I was wondering if I can walk to the cage with you on Saturday night. It would be a dream come true."
Velasquez said he didn't know if that was possible, but would be "cool with it." The champ looked up at White, who shrugged and peered into the crowd: "Yeah, we'll do it dude." Half an hour later, after fighters were whisked away and the crowd had dispersed, Jaime’s email and phone number were in possession of White's assistant. He was in.
"I'm probably going to be emotional," he said, smiling. "I'm a really emotional person. To know that [Velasquez] is the reason why I do the things I do for the Mexican people is pretty awesome. I think it's going to be surreal."
Jaime, who said he put himself through college and works as a registered nurse, said over the last three years Velasquez inspired him to learn about their shared heritage and to feel proud when speaking about where his family is from. Jaime also volunteers at a local Mexican-American nonprofit, where he helps kids with tough backgrounds find jobs.
"Before, I wouldn't wear this shirt," he said. "Now I'm proud. I'm actually proud because of Cain. Seeing his story and seeing him live the American dream made me realize I shouldn't be ashamed of who I am."